The Golden Age: The Real-Life Ball That Inspired Bertha’s Extravagant Final Event

Golden age Creator Julian Fellowes knows a good story. The screenwriter won an Oscar for Gosford Parkdozens of awards and nominations for Downton Abbey (with another movie on the way in May), and growing interest in his latest attempt at top and bottom airing on HBO. So when the writer stumbled across the story of Alva Vanderbilt’s historic 1883 ball—and her surprisingly shrewd machinations, which essentially forced New York’s queen bee Caroline Astor to attend—he knew he wanted highlight this real incident in the Golden ageis the Season 1 finale.

“I remember when I read about Alva’s prom, I thought, this is so awesome,” Fellowes said. vanity lounge on a recent Zoom. “I’m just going to lift it all up and put it in the drama.”

In real life, Vanderbilt, a direct inspiration for by Carrie Coon Bertha Russell – was desperate to establish herself in polite society when she arrived in New York with her husband William. After facing reluctance from old-money snobs, most notably Astor, Vanderbilt decided to throw an elaborate 1,200-person costume ball — and ensnared Astor’s own daughter in his strategy, refusing to go along with it. invite the teenager (who was supposed to participate in a dance with Alva’s daughter) unless Caroline herself visits. The ruse worked and, thanks to Caroline’s presence (the approval her more than 1,000 guests finally got to witness!), the ball marked Vanderbilt’s official coming out.

The costume ball also looked like an extravagant housewarming party. Vanderbilt and her husband had recently completed construction of their “Little Castle”, which cost $3 million (about $90 million today). The four-story Fifth Avenue mansion was built in the style of French royalty and would inspire other European-style homes in New York City thereafter. (Fellowes notes that the Morris Hunt-designed house, one of the true grand mansions of the Gilded Age, has since been “torn down and replaced by a commercial building without any architectural value,” says Fellowes. great loss to New York.”)

The hostess was so determined to show off her property that she (or one of her employees) invited a New York Times reporter to visit her home before the party, even providing precise measurements of the rooms and the name of her florist, both of which appear in the report. “The Whole Company in Costume: Mrs. WK Vanderbilt’s Grand Costume Ball” made the front page of New York Times and reversed on a second. There were specific details of the anticipation for the event (it “has stirred New York society more than any other social event that has occurred here for many years”), a ticking of the event itself, a description of the best moments of the costume party, and a recap of the quadrilles. (Popular in the 19th century, the quadrille was a four-couple dance and a formal ancestor of the square dance.) Many balls featured a quadrille, but Vanderbilt featured six, each with a clever theme and absurdly expensive costume. The quadrilles had been rehearsed for weeks in advance and choreographed in different ornately decorated areas of the Petit Château. (To better show off its sprawling real estate!).

“In the case of the Dresden Quadrille, the women dressed and powdered in white to resemble Dresden china, becoming living statues in a house that was full of sculpture, painting and decorative art,” writes the Met. . “Other quadrilles, including one with life-size hobby horses strapped to the dancers’ waists, flowed from the third-floor dining room (called the “gymnasium”), down the grand staircase, and into the second-floor drawing room. The choreographed dances moved through multiple sections of the house, inserting bodies, fabrics and props into spaces that had yet to be fully inhabited, as the house had only been completed days prior.

Golden age pays particular homage to the recreational horse quadrille, imagining it to be the dance in which Gladys, the Russell’s daughter, [Taissa Farmiga] and carrie [Amy Forsyth] to take part.

By Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO.

As a historian Helene Veitassociate professor of history at Michigan State University and consultant on Golden age, notes in an interview: “The costumes we see in the Russell Quadrille also reference Vanderbilt’s original ball. At the real Vanderbilt Ball, all the guests wore elaborate and expensive costumes. We don’t have costumes at the Russell Ball, but you get a sense of the literal fortune that wealthy Gilded Age women like Alva Vanderbilt were willing to spend on fleeting entertainment that established their social standing. . (Real hobby horse costumes took over two months to make from actual animal skins and were probably never reused.)

About Carl Schroeder

Check Also

Entrepreneurs Graduate from TWU’s Inaugural TX Women Owned Incubator Program » Dallas Innovates

The first class of female entrepreneurs graduated from the TX Women Owned Incubator program. Selected …